The Guardian, 5 November 2012

Detectives Blog

Another round number, so it’s time for another iconic series. is one of those shows which can be used as social shorthand. If you’ve seen it, and you don’t like it, we probably won’t ever be friends. If you’ve seen it, and blithely said you didn’t get it till you watched it with subtitles, we also won’t be friends. The Wire requires you to concentrate on it. That’s not a weakness, it’s a demand.

Set in Baltimore, The Wire follows an epic cast of characters, of police officers (or po-lice, as they tend to describe themselves), junkies, dealers, politicians, killers, and more. It never talks down to its audience, but rather works on the premise that all great drama does: don’t patronise or explain, just tell the story, and your audience will jump to reach you.

It’s tough to choose which detective to write about from The Wire: the self-destructively handsome McNulty, the spectacularly sweary Bunk, the insanely-buff-for-the-boss Daniels? Badass Kima, bull-headed Herc, streetwise Carver? They’re all worthy of a column in their own right, and if this blog runs for long enough, they’ll get one each. But for now, my focus falls on the quiet man: Lester Freamon.

The joy of The Wire is that almost no-one is stupid. The cops are smart, the crooks are smart, and everyone has an agenda. As with all the best tragedies (and much of The Wire is a tragedy), the rights of each individual are in direct contradiction with one another. Death, often violent death, is frequently the only solution.

But there is also a symbiotic quality to the gangs in The Wire, only some of which are criminal. The cops only exist to catch the drug-dealers. The drug-dealers exist to feed the addicts, and keep the other dealers in check. The addicts scrape by on a few bucks from the police in exchange for a little information on the dealers. Everyone feeds off everyone else.

It’s that rarest thing: a detective show where the police are as morally flawed as the criminals, and the criminals are as morally complex as the investigators. If this blog covered iconic TV villains, The Wire would provide easily the best ones (Stringer, Omar, Avon, D’Angelo, Marlo). It would also produce the most pathos-riddled victims, who I won’t name, in case you’re about to watch the show for the first time.

But even in this dog-eat-dog world, Freamon is unique, because he is a man of almost limitless patience. He understands the difference between right and wrong, even when it costs him thirteen years of his police career (dumped behind a desk after catching a well-connected perp). He used the time carving dollhouse furniture, because that is what men of limitless patience tend to do. It’s all down to Clarke Peters’ lovely, contained performance that this makes Freamon oddly more attractive rather than less.

He also understands how to bend the rules, but never too far (you hear that, McNulty? This means you, in season 5). He knows that following the money will always lead you to the criminal. If it pains him to give up on a case which isn’t fully and entirely completed, we don’t think of him as obsessive, we simply think of him as right.

McNulty is the heart of the wire-tapping detective squad, and Freamon is the brains. He’s always thinking, because he knows he’s as smart as the criminals they’re trying to catch. Since they have an enormous incentive to be one step ahead of the police, Lester realises that he has to try harder, think more creatively, persist beyond common sense and self-preservation if he is ever going to make a difference.

Iconic? You’re surely joking. Not having watched The Wire is qualitatively the same as having spent the last five years hitting yourself in the face with a stick once a day. What are you doing? Stop it.

And Freamon is the most iconic of the bunch: a man who will subpoena you into oblivion if you have the audacity to cross him. Threaten him, punish him, force him to retire, but he will never give in.

Duffers? I hear you: Season 5 isn’t the strongest, unless you have a passionate interest in the survival of print media in a digital age.